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21 August 2019
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Geoffrey Wright on the power of HD

Director Geoffrey Wright made a huge impact with his debut feature, the powerful low-budget Romper Stomper, in 1992. His latest feature, Macbeth, will be released later this year - a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare's play set in Melbourne's criminal underworld. Although made for $3.4 million, the HD production used a low-budget approach in many areas to deliver maximum production value and impact. Wright talks here to AFC project manager Jackie McKimmie.

Why Shakespeare?

With Shakespeare you know the plot will be filled with great passions and clear objectives; that's more than you can say for most of the local scripts that get written these days. We set the story in present day Melbourne and Mount Macedon. Feudal warriors and kings were replaced by modern gangsters and their bosses.

What was the budget and what determined it?

The budget was around $3.4 million, and it was determined by the fact that we didn't want to wait to scrape up further funding. We wanted to work ASAP. From first draft to first shooting day was something like seven months, no more. This is very, very fast.

Where did the money come from?

Some private money, Film Victoria, Film Finance Corporation, Arclight, Mushroom.

How did the budget impact on the length of the shoot and the way you chose to make the film?

We had enough money to keep the film visually dense and rich, provided we kept the shooting time short. If we had a longer shooting time we'd have fewer production values. We realised that with proper planning and rehearsals and High Definition [HD] we could get by on a schedule of 25 or 26 days. Going the other way - a longer shooting time - there was no way we could maintain the production values.

What are your thoughts on shooting HD?

HD is an outstanding medium and we couldn't have got through the schedule without it. The savings we could make amounted to a couple of hundred thousand dollars, which, on our budget, was significant. I think you have to have rocks in your head to shoot 35mm for any film with a budget under six million dollars. HD can mimic film, but left alone it has its own beautiful aesthetic, which can be massaged almost infinitely in post-production. Colour balancing becomes a much more creative and painterly process digitally. I think HD will only go from strength to strength. It's the beginning of the end of sprockets for films of any budget.

Of course it's cheaper to shoot HD. The camera department moves faster with HD, there's no time spent 'checking the gate' because there are almost no moving parts. The shooting ratio compared to film is astronomically bigger because stock cost is not an issue. You can leave the camera on all the time, capturing much, much more detail in a scene with the B or C cameras, while the A camera can capture an endless string of lead performances without interruption. In other words, the more ambitious you are to cover a scene, the cheaper (and more feasible) the exercise becomes. In post, the addition of effects is cheaper and easier to control, and the overall task of grading the film is open to more affordable options.

HD improves coverage, performance, special FX and grading. It's a comprehensively superior medium to film at the lower-budget end, allowing for more money and time to [spend on putting] production values on the screen. I could not have shot Macbeth in 25 days if we'd gone with sprockets. I would have needed more time, and that would mean less money for the art department, costumes, you name it.

HD technology is kinder to actors. One feels that the set is there for the actor, not the camera. Actors have more chance to experiment or vary their interpretations of a moment. They can give you more options. Some people then complain that they have too much to look at in the rushes, but that's a high-class 'problem' most directors and editors love to have.

I understand you had a large cast. How long was the rehearsal period, and what was your rehearsal process?

As soon as we had a role cast we would get the actor to start rehearsing with the others. Paying actors to rehearse, short of your absolute leads, is not expensive. I probably wanted more rehearsal for this than any other film I have done because the dialogue was not something you could wing on the day or reinterpret. We had to get it right when the cameras were turned on; there was no time for a lot of takes to cope with garbled line readings. All that had to be ironed out early. My text specialist, Greg, would run lines with the group when I was out looking at locations, props, costumes or whatever. Greg drilled everyone on the basics, and I would come in later and adjust the performance to suit the angle we would take on the day.

What was the format you used to look at rushes?

We transferred the digital images to DVD and played them on a big TV screen. I would keep a DVD copy, and just study it on my computer on set or after wrap.

How long did you have to edit the film, and what was the process?

As usual, we assembled the film on an Avid as we shot. We then had about ten weeks in post to complete the cut of the film. That was interrupted by test screenings, some very casual, others more formal, which would dictate adjustments.

What was your approach to music? Did the budget have any impact?

Budget always has an impact, but we knew that John Clifford White could deliver a rich orchestral sound with the money he had. He did about 65 per cent of the score. The remainder was provided by The Devastations, Smedley and Rolf (who sometimes semi-reprised John's themes as well as did original work), and Roland Howard. It became a blend of classical, dirty guitar and club electronica; a nice balance of timeless and modern sounds.

Is there anything you would have done differently if you had had more money?

With more money I would have shot longer - I would have bought time - but I don't feel we compromised painfully anywhere with the approach we took.

Would you choose to make a film on that budget again?

Yes, I would, but we pushed the envelope on this particular project. You wouldn't want to tackle more than 35 speaking parts with a cent less than what we had.

You've been making films for a while now. In your opinion how is filmmaking different to when you first started?

In Australia, the biggest thing I've noticed is how short the schedules are getting. In many ways it's easier than ever to make a modest-budget film, but it's getting much harder to put any kind of production value into them. Some of the departments (costume, production design, make-up) are becoming lost arts - sucked into a kind of backyard approach turned nightmare. All is grunge and nothing is sparkle.

What do you see as the pitfalls of low-budget filmmaking?

Never, ever use your own money. If you have any talent at all there's always some soft money around. These stories about people making films on their credit cards are shocking, crazy, stupid. Pretty soon, if you keep working at a backyard level (because you are using your own money), you start to accept abysmal levels of production value as somehow normal.

Anything else you'd like to add?

Use a common-sense approach to a low budget: keep your travelling time to a minimum, write for only a few great locations, not tons of ordinary ones. Keep away from actors' agencies that want to screw you for every last dollar because they don't understand you are not Warner Bros. Look for new and serious talent in cast and crew.

$3.4 million is a lot more than the low budget we generally talk about, but the same rules apply. The trap in low-budget filmmaking is thinking that an audience appreciates your efforts to get anything at all on the screen.

Macbeth is due for release in Australia in September through Palace.

Sam Worthington and Victoria Hill (as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth) in Geoffrey Wright's new film adaptation.